Book Review: Astrid and Veronika

Category: Book Reviews

I am scribbling my notebooks full. My post about the new Domizil is still not finished although the move was complete in January and the snow never came but the crocus, daffodils and forsythia did. Now, they are gone too. It is early May. No matter. What matters is focus and to focus, I am writing what is important, and important to me right now is this sentence…

“That night, she lay in a bed where her body was an unfamiliar shape, in this house that didn’t know her yet.”

It’s from the second page of Astrid and Veronika and it is important to me because of the way I stopped and wondered if I might not have written “That night she lay in an unfamiliar bed in a house she didn’t yet know” instead.

I saw after a minute that it would have been wrong: two sentences which say the same thing must not express the same thing. This morning my thoughts wander off to the abstract idea that we living-beings are “expressions” of the, well, of God, for lack of a better word. Is this how people are like sentences? Is this what Terence McKenna meant when he said “I don’t believe the world is made of quarks, or electromagnetic waves, or stars, or planets, or any of these things. I believe the world is made of language.”

Yes, well, let us disembark from that rollercoaster and get back to my poor sentence which doesn’t hold nearly the quality of alienation, the depth of foreignness that Linda Olsson’s beautiful sentence does. In mine, we would have been watching our heroine, one of them anyway, from the inside when we belong on the outside. We do not know her - only that she is, maybe, a stranger in her own life. We feel her strangeness and we know it would be wrong, too invasive, if we, the reading population of the entire planet were already inside of her head.

This where we start our journey into the story, on the outside looking in and understanding nothing. Just like Veronika herself. Who is she and how did she come to this isolation? How did she come to be “an orphan in an orphan house”? I read along, watching, waiting. I trust an author who minds her sentences like this one does to write a novel that will unfold and satisfy me.

I settle into my sofa with a cup of tea…

Her life slowly found its own organic rhythm. After a week she had established her morning routine. … It felt as if the house had accepted her, as if they had begun their life together.

Yes, after a few pages I felt the novel had accepted me too, as if we had begun our life together.

Veronika’s neighbor, Astrid Mattson is, according to a shopkeeper in the nearby village, “the village witch”. She “doesn’t like people. Keeps to herself. Not much of a neighbor, I’m afraid.”

And indeed, it is two weeks before Veronika gets her first glimpse of her neighbor.

The old woman looked almost obscenely exposed, a hunched solitary figure in a dark heavy coat and rubber boots uncertainly navigating the icy road on her way to the village. Her house had been her protector until then, the dark windows loyal keepers of the secrets of the life inside.

In the next chapter we are introduced to Astrid - a woman of indeterminate old age. A woman with memories of the past which require all of her energy to hold at bay.

The effort was a constant, draining task, absorbing all her energy. And there were moments when it failed. When she was overcome by feelings as intense as when they were new. The trigger were unpredictable and she trod cautiously. For a long time she had drifted in still backwaters, patiently awaiting the final undertow. And now this, a slight rippling of the surface.

We watch Astrid “wake up” to the sounds of her neighbor’s car door, her music, to the view of her starting off on her morning walk with a friendly wave in the direction of Astrid’s dark windows.

She listened and she felt the world invade. Life. and she turned her face to the wall and cried.

One morning we are privy to an extraordinary scene: Astrid standing deep and nearly invisible to the outside world in her darkened kitchen. While we are watching, she absently lifts her hand to return Veronika’s wave. At this early stage in the novel, when it is so clear that the two women are deeply inside themselves, I was as surprised by the small gesture as Astrid is. In my minds eye, I looked at Astrid’s hand and wondered that it looked so much like my own.

The rest of the novel is a glorious exploration of friendship, of that surprising love that springs up between two women who have naively assumed, as any of us might, that heart’s love, once lost is forever gone. It is not a novel full of daring-do except that the courage to face our disappointments is a courage many of us turn out to be missing.

I finished reading this evening in the last warmth of the sun on my balcony, my much beloved tulip fountain working hard to produce sounds of serenity between the cityscape noises and the motorcycles. White and purple, purple and white pansys bloom in my old Christmas tree stand cum planter on the faded yellow Mexican oilcloth, a cool glass of Sauvingon Blanc at my elbow.

Astrid and Veronika is a special brand, a rainy afternoon, a sofa novel and fittingly, it came to be in my bookshelf because of a surprise friendship - also very short in physical proximity but deeply satisfying. My friend wandered through my life as Veronika does Astrid’s and tonight, nearly a year since we saw each other last, she nests securely in my heart.